Education Funding Opinion

With ESSA Passage, Delaware Offers Lessons

By Paul Herdman — January 05, 2016 6 min read
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With the dust finally settling on the passage of ESSA—the Every Student Succeeds Act—the implications are clear: The pendulum has swung. No matter who becomes our next president, we are entering an era in which the federal government is loosening its grip on public education policy. Without that backstop, the onus of school accountability will rest squarely on the states with the start of the 2017-18 school year. As a result, public and private leaders at the state and local levels will need to fundamentally rethink their roles.

This has been a long time coming. The No Child Left Behind Act, the ESSA predecessor passed by Congress in 2001, created a fairly muscular federal role in public school accountability. Through legislative authority and funding allocations, the federal government inspired a shift toward rewards and sanctions based on student assessments developed by each of the states.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top challenge, in 2009, took things further. By offering hundreds of millions of dollars of grant funding in exchange for important but hard-to-implement state strategies, the U.S. Department of Education catalyzed higher standards; aligned assessments; stronger teacher and school accountability; better college access; classroom innovation; and a raft of efforts to support these ideas at the classroom level.


Today, 14 years after No Child Left Behind was signed into law and six years after Race to the Top—its dollars spent and scrutinized—the country has repositioned the role of the federal government in education. Despite several unknowns about the path ahead, the left and the right seem to agree that power and influence should swing from the feds to the states.

Without a strong federal role, how will states avoid exacerbating the divides between the haves and the have-nots? How will we make real progress on complex issues and avoid the typical policy churn at the state and district levels? (Charismatic leader arrives, lots of new initiatives are introduced, field says “too much, too fast,” leader moves on, or gets moved on, the patina on the machine changes, the machine itself changes little.)

The reality is that any of the meaningful changes we hope to address in education will take longer than any one political cycle. If we want to address early learning systemically, fundamentally redesign a funding system, strengthen the teaching profession, or re-evaluate the delivery of education via personalization, we need a consistent vision that is owned by the public and private stakeholders and that can endure multiple political cycles.

While public-private partnerships exist in many states, the breadth and longevity of one particular state coalition is pretty unusual: that of Delaware.

Since 2005, education stakeholders in the First State have maintained a collaboration of public and private leaders called the Vision Coalition, of which I was a founding member. This group includes a leadership team of 12 with members from the following sectors: labor and business, districts and charters, nonprofits and corporations, higher education and early learning. Back in 2006, we released a report called “Vision 2015"—a 10-year vision for the state’s work ahead.

Fast-forward to today. More than three-quarters of the recommendations from that plan have been implemented, thanks in no small measure to funding from two federal government competitions—$119 million through Race to the Top in 2009 and $49 million for the Early Learning Challenge in 2011. Our early-learning structure statewide has been transformed. Our higher standards, in the form of the common core and the Next Generation Science Standards, have been implemented statewide.

The state built a data system that is arguably the best in the country. We revamped teacher preparation, created a stronger teacher-evaluation system, and piloted personalized-learning models throughout the state.

As a result, our students are better off. In-state indicators have moved aggressively, particularly in areas like early learning, high school graduation, and college access and completion. Delaware, like many other states, saw its National Assessment of Educational Progress scores dip this year, but between 1992 and 2011, we had the third-fastest student-achievement growth trajectory in the United States, according to a 2012 study by Erik Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann.

How will we make real progress on complex issues and avoid the typical policy churn at the state and district levels?

We’ve been fortunate, but the landscape is changing. The federal funding is nearly gone. Gov. Jack Markell, a champion of education, will see his tenure end a year from now. And, as in much of the nation, the political environment around education in Delaware is fractious and tense.

It’s why our Vision Coalition remains more important than ever. The personal relationships that have developed over the last decade among charter and district leaders, and CEOs and union presidents, have enabled us to continue moving forward. It’s hard to demonize someone you actually know.

As we approached the shifting tides in 2014, the coalition began engaging the local community in an effort to think through their priorities for the next decade. The result is “Student Success 2025"—an education plan for the state. (The full report and student videos are available at www.visioncoalitionde.org.)

The coalition released the report this past fall, and here are five lessons that may be helpful to other states entering this new world of federal devolution:

  1. Map backward. We learned from our colleagues in Canada and Singapore that if we asked people to imagine a long-term goal—in our case: what a well-educated Delaware graduate would need to know in 2025—that we could establish an ambitious common vision and not get mired in the current debates. Once we defined that North Star, which included much more than the mastery of academic content, it drove the design of the policy changes needed to get us there.
  2. Design from the bottom up, rather than the top down. On the heels of Race to the Top, there was a real desire for bottom-up solutions. The coalition had 4,000 “cups of coffee” with local citizens, including more than 1,000 students and recent high school grads, to hear their thoughts and to help us build the plan. Some were online, but most were in local fire halls and libraries. They were real conversations.
  3. Seek common ground, and lead. Like every other state, Delaware has debated issues like school choice and testing. Our coalition didn’t avoid those issues, but we didn’t let them derail us either. We had an 85 percent rule, which meant any leadership-team member could walk from the table if he or she disagreed with more than 15 percent of the plan. No one’s walked yet. As one of our early facilitators, Marty Linsky, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said: “Leadership is about being willing to disappoint your own constituency at a rate that they can stand.”
  4. Build in time and transparency. We deliberately took time to do this right so that everyone had a chance to weigh in. Rather than look for tepid endorsements at the 11th hour, the coalition produced a draft plan in six months and solicited feedback for five months. We didn’t publish the final report until almost a year later.
  5. Incorporate independent voices to avoid mush. Commission reports often sink to the lowest common denominator because the authors don’t want to offend anyone on the commission. The result is often meaningless mush. To mitigate that danger, we looked to a third-party consulting group, as well as national and international experts, who informed and challenged our recommendations.

Vigorous debate won’t (and shouldn’t) ever go away. But in this new era of federal devolution, state and local leaders will need to find new ways to infuse more respect and humility into their work together. Agreeing on a plan is hard. Implementing it is harder.

As the country recalculates its course on how to prepare our next generations of leaders, parents, and citizens, Delaware hopes to learn with and from other states moving down the messy, yet essential, path toward higher ground and higher achievement for our students.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2016 edition of Education Week as As Feds Step Back, the First State Steps Up


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